On the morning after Independence Day, Gary Evans and his wife sat at Magnolia Beach and laughed over cups of coffee.
Their campsite, near the fishing pier, was quiet, unlike the day before, when family came down for an ideal holiday celebration.
“He was in his element there ... around everything he loved most – his friends, his family, his crabbing on the water,” said his wife, Debbie Mattix, 60. “But on Saturday morning, he couldn’t walk. That is how quick it hit.”
Evans died at 56 years old Monday from an apparent flesh-eating bacterial infection known as necrotizing fasciitis, four days after his wife said he contracted Vibrio bacteria at Magnolia Beach.
He was 6 feet, 4 inches tall and in good health, she said.
Vibrio is naturally present in some coastal waters, including the Gulf of Mexico. There are about a dozen species of the bacteria, which are present in higher concentrations between May and October, when water temperatures are warmest, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those species can cause an illness called vibriosis.
Most Vibrio cases are gastrointestinal infections resulting from raw or undercooked shellfish consumption, said Brittany Burgess, the Victoria County Public Health Department’s epidemiologist.
“Less commonly, we see the skin infections from an open wound exposed to saltwater or brackish waters, shellfish or shellfish juices,” she said.
About 88,000 cases and 100 deaths resulting from Vibrio are seen nationwide each year, according to the CDC. Because Vibrio bacteria are not easily identified with routine testing, many cases go unreported.
Only one confirmed Vibrio case has been reported in Victoria County this year, said Chris Van Deusen, the Texas Department of State Health Services’ media relations director. A Victoria resident reportedly contracted the bacteria in April, he said.
The Victoria County Public Health Department has yet to receive any reports of necrotizing fasciitis this year, Burgess said.
On rare occasions, Vibrio can cause a flesh-eating bacterial infection, which spreads quickly in the body and can be fatal, Burgess said. The bacteria most commonly enters the body through a break in the skin, including cuts or scrapes, burns, insect bites, puncture wounds and surgical rods.
The CDC tracks the infection, which is most commonly caused by group A Streptococcus. Between 700 and 1,200 cases have occurred in the U.S. each year since 2010, according to the center.
Mattix said her husband never got in the water at Magnolia Beach or ate raw shellfish but was crabbing from the shore and had exposed, minor scrapes.
His feet and legs were severely swollen Saturday before she drove him to Citizens Medical Center in Victoria for what they thought could be something as minor as dehydration, she said.
“We got there and they let me know he wasn’t going home; he was going straight into ICU,” she said. “Doctors started treating him for Vibrio, but it wasn’t confirmed until the next day; that is when they said it started manifesting itself.”
Mattix said her husband was put on fluids, antibiotics and painkillers. By Sunday, she said, large, pus-filled blisters had started developing down his legs, forcing him into surgery.
After the initial infection, necrotizing fasciitis can advance to ulcers, blisters or black spots on the skin, and around the site of the infection, pus or drainage can start. The condition spreads rapidly and can lead to sepsis, shock and organ failure.
Because necrotizing fasciitis is difficult to diagnose and survival is dependent on immediate medical attention, doctors sometimes do not wait for test results to act.
Mattix said she was notified her husband had 72 hours left before he went into surgery Sunday.
“They did everything they could do,” she said. “He was very, very sick, and it ended up beating him. It spread into his liver, his kidneys and he was on a respirator. It also got into his blood system and started collapsing his veins.”
Evans was a meticulous, kind man who was engaging and outgoing, said his sister-in-law, Judy Flowers. He moved to Texas from Indiana almost a decade ago after falling in love with the Texas coast during a trip to South Padre.
“It is really sad because Gary was a really good guy,” she said. “It is something you hear about happening to other people, and it is tragic, and it kind of gives you pause.”
His wife said he was always trying to help other people, like after Hurricane Harvey, when large tree limbs were down throughout their neighborhood in north Victoria, where many senior citizens live.
“Gary was out there with his chainsaw, all over the neighborhood, just doing,” she said. “He was always doing something.”
Mattix hopes her husband’s tragic death will make people more cautious and aware of the risks while enjoying the Texas coast. As Burgess noted, the infection “is rare but can affect anyone.”
“This bacteria is a lot worse than people really think it is,” Mattix said. “It is not a bacteria that is easily contained; it comes in with vengeance, and it is relentless, just, like, destroying everything in its path.”